Tag Archives: denialism

If it Disagrees With Experiment it is Wrong


This post’s title belongs to the great physicist and bongo player Richard Feynman. It brings into sharp relief one of the many challenges in our current fractured political discourse — that objective fact is a political tool and scientific denialism is now worn as a badge of honor by many politicians (mostly on the right).

Climate science is a great example of the chasm between rational debate and established facts on the one hand and anti-science, conspiracy mythologists [I’m still searching for a better word] on the other. Some climate deniers simply wave away evidence as nothing but regular weather. Others pronounce that climate change is a plot by the Chinese.

I firmly believe in the scientific method and objective fact; the progress we have witnessed over the last 150 or so years due to science and scientists alone is spectacular. Long may it continue. Yet as Scientific American tells us we need to be alarmed and remain vigilant — it wouldn’t take much effort to return to the Dark Ages.

From Scientific American:

Four years ago in these pages, writer Shawn Otto warned our readers of the danger of a growing antiscience current in American politics. “By turning public opinion away from the antiauthoritarian principles of the nation’s founders,” Otto wrote, “the new science denialism is creating an existential crisis like few the country has faced before.”

Otto wrote those words in the heat of a presidential election race that now seems quaint by comparison to the one the nation now finds itself in. As if to prove his point, one of the two major party candidates for the highest office in the land has repeatedly and resoundingly demonstrated a disregard, if not outright contempt, for science. Donald Trump also has shown an authoritarian tendency to base policy arguments on questionable assertions of fact and a cult of personality.

Americans have long prided themselves on their ability to see the world for what it is, as opposed to what someone says it is or what most people happen to believe. In one of the most powerful lines in American literature, Huck Finn says: “It warn’t so. I tried it.” A respect for evidence is not just a part of the national character. It goes to the heart of the country’s particular brand of democratic government. When the founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, scientist and inventor, wrote arguably the most important line in the Declaration of Independence—“We hold these truths to be self-evident”—they were asserting the fledgling nation’s grounding in the primacy of reason based on evidence.

Read the article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

Earth Day 2016: Silicon Swamp Edition


How better to mark this year’s Earth Day than to remind ourselves of the existential perils of climate change. As the Earth warms, polar ice melts, sea-levels rise. As sea-levels rise, low lying coastal lands submerge. Much of coastal Florida would disappear under a sea-level rise of a mere 6 feet.

Our tech innovation hub in Silicon Valley wouldn’t fare well either. Many of our tech giants, including Google, Facebook, Oracle, Cisco and Salesforce, have planted their roots on the bay-side of Silicon Valley. Much of this area is only a handful of feet above sea-level. Oh, and kiss goodbye to San Francisco International Airport as well — though perhaps the local VCs could re-purpose it into a sea-plane terminal.

The map above, courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), highlights the flood prone areas in shades of blue.

From the Guardian:

Technology giants including Facebook and Google face the prospect of their prestigious Silicon Valley headquarters becoming swamped by water as rising sea levels threaten to submerge much of the property development boom gripping San Francisco and the Bay Area.

Sea level forecasts by a coalition of scientists show that the Silicon Valley bases for Facebook, Google and Cisco are at risk of being cut off or even flooded, even under optimistic scenarios where rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions avoid the most severe sea level increases.

Without significant adaptation, Facebook’s new campus appears most at risk. The 430,000 sq ft complex – topped with a nine-acre garden rooftop – is an extension of its Menlo Park base and was crafted by architect Frank Gehry. Located near the San Francisco Bay shoreline, the offices are designed to house 2,800 staff.

“Facebook is very vulnerable,” said Lindy Lowe, a senior planner at California’s Bay Conservation and Development Commission. “They built on a very low site – I don’t know why they chose to build there. Facebook thinks they can pay enough to protect themselves.

“The temporary flooding within the campus can probably be addressed, but the temporary flooding onto the roadway can’t be addressed by them. I think they realize that is the weakest link for them. We’ll see how dedicated they are to that facility.”

Facebook has elevated its office to spare it from flooding, but even with a 1.6ft rise in sea levels by the end of the century – which is towards the lower end of projections – the area around it will be inundated. Much sooner, within the coming decades, the roads leading into the complex will flood so regularly that major adaptions will be required to keep the site viable. Facebook didn’t respond to repeated requests to comment on the issue.

The situation is a little better for Google, located in Mountain View and also unwilling to discuss sea level rise, and Cisco, headquartered in San Jose. But should the Antarctic ice sheet disintegrate, as outlined in a recent scientific paper, seas will be pushed up beyond 6ft and swamp both businesses.

The situation is similarly stark for Salesforce, which would see its San Francisco base submerged under the worst sea level rise scenario. Meanwhile, Airbnb, located near the vulnerable Mission Bay area, will have its headquarters gain a much closer bayside view simply by staying put.

Read the entire store here.

Image: Sea-level rise and coastal flooding impacts, San Francisco / Bay Area map. Courtesy of NOAA.

Heads in the Rising Tide


Officials from the state of Florida seem to have their heads in the sand (and other places); sand that is likely to be swept from their very own Florida shores as sea levels rise. However, surely climate change could be an eventual positive for Florida: think warmer climate and huge urban swathes underwater — a great new Floridian theme park! But, remember, don’t talk about it. I suppose officials will soon be looking for a contemporary version of King Canute to help them out of this watery pickle.

From Wired:

The oceans are slowly overtaking Florida. Ancient reefs of mollusk and coral off the present-day coasts are dying. Annual extremes in hot and cold, wet and dry, are becoming more pronounced. Women and men of science have investigated, and a great majority agree upon a culprit. In the outside world, this culprit has a name, but within the borders of Florida, it does not. According to a  Miami Herald investigation, the state Department of Environmental Protection has since 2010 had an unwritten policy prohibiting the use of some well-understood phrases for the meteorological phenomena slowly drowning America’s weirdest-shaped state. It’s … that thing where burning too much fossil fuel puts certain molecules into a certain atmosphere, disrupting a certain planetary ecosystem. You know what we’re talking about. We know you know. They know we know you know. But are we allowed to talk about … you know? No. Not in Florida. It must not be spoken of. Ever.

Unless … you could, maybe, type around it? It’s worth a shot.

The cyclone slowdown

It has been nine years since Florida was hit by a proper hurricane. Could that be a coincidence? Sure. Or it could be because of … something. A nameless, voiceless something. A feeling, like a pricking-of-thumbs, this confluence-of-chemistry-and-atmospheric-energy-over-time. If so, this anonymous dreadfulness would, scientists say, lead to a drier middle layer of atmosphere over the ocean. Because water vapor stores energy, this dry air will suffocate all but the most energetic baby storms. “So the general thinking, is that that as [redacted] levels increase, it ultimately won’t have an effect on the number of storms,” says Jim Kossin, a scientist who studies, oh, how about “things-that-happen-in-the-atmosphere-over-long-time-periods” at the National Centers for Environmental Information. “However, there is a lot of evidence that if a storm does form, it has a chance of getting very strong.”

Storms darken the sky

Hurricanes are powered by energy in the sea. And as cold and warm currents thread around the globe, storms go through natural, decades-long cycles of high-to-low intensity. “There is a natural 40-to-60-year oscillation in what sea surface temperatures are doing, and this is driven by ocean-wide currents that move on very slow time scales,” says Kossin, who has authored reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on, well, let’s just call it Chemical-and-Thermodynamic-Alterations-to-Long-Term-Atmospheric-Conditions. But in recent years, storms have become stronger than that natural cycle would otherwise predict. Kossin says that many in his field agree that while the natural churning of the ocean is behind this increasing intensity, other forces are at work. Darker, more sinister forces, like thermodynamics. Possibly even chemistry. No one knows for sure. Anyway, storms are getting less frequent, but stronger. It’s an eldritch tale of unspeakable horror, maybe.

 Read the entire article here.

Image: King Knut (or Cnut or Canute) the Great, illustrated in a medieval manuscript. Courtesy of Der Spiegel Geschichte.

Climate change: Not in My Neigborhood

It’s no surprise that in our daily lives we seek information that reinforces our perceptions, opinions and beliefs of the world around us. It’s also the case that if we do not believe in a particular position, we will overlook any evidence in our immediate surroundings that runs contrary to our disbelief — climate change is no different.

[div class=attrib]From ars technica:[end-div]

We all know it’s hard to change someone’s mind. In an ideal, rational world, a person’s opinion about some topic would be based on several pieces of evidence. If you were to supply that person with several pieces of stronger evidence that point in another direction, you might expect them to accept the new information and agree with you.

However, this is not that world, and rarely do we find ourselves in a debate with Star Trek’s Spock. There are a great many reasons that we behave differently. One is the way we rate incoming information for trustworthiness and importance. Once we form an opinion, we rate information that confirms our opinion more highly than information that challenges it. This is one form of “motivated reasoning.” We like to think we’re right, and so we are motivated to come to the conclusion that the facts are still on our side.

Publicly contentious issues often put a spotlight on these processes—issues like climate change, example. In a recent paper published in Nature Climate Change, researchers from George Mason and Yale explore how motivated reasoning influences whether people believe they have personally experienced the effects of climate change.

When it comes to communicating the science of global warming, a common strategy is to focus on the concrete here-and-now rather than the abstract and distant future. The former is easier for people to relate to and connect with. Glazed eyes are the standard response to complicated graphs of projected sea level rise, with ranges of uncertainty and several scenarios of future emissions. Show somebody that their favorite ice fishing spot is iced over for several fewer weeks each winter than it was in the late 1800s, though, and you might have their attention.

Public polls show that acceptance of a warming climate correlates with agreement that one has personally experienced its effects. That could be affirmation that personal experience is a powerful force for the acceptance of climate science. Obviously, there’s another possibility—that those who accept that the climate is warming are more likely to believe they’ve experienced the effects themselves, whereas those who deny that warming is taking place are unlikely to see evidence of it in daily life. That’s, at least partly, motivated reasoning at work. (And of course, this cuts both ways. Individuals who agree that the Earth is warming may erroneously interpret unrelated events as evidence of that fact.)

The survey used for this study was unique in that the same people were polled twice, two and a half years apart, to see how their views changed over time. For the group as a whole, there was evidence for both possibilities—experience affected acceptance, and acceptance predicted statements about experience.

Fortunately, the details were a bit more interesting than that. When you categorize individuals by engagement—essentially how confident and knowledgeable they feel about the facts of the issue—differences are revealed. For the highly-engaged groups (on both sides), opinions about whether climate is warming appeared to drive reports of personal experience. That is, motivated reasoning was prevalent. On the other hand, experience really did change opinions for the less-engaged group, and motivated reasoning took a back seat.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article following the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of: New York Times / Steen Ulrik Johannessen / Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.[end-div]



The Battle of Evidence and Science versus Belief and Magic

An insightful article over at the Smithsonian ponders the national (U.S.) decline in the trust of science. Regardless of the topic in question — climate change, health supplements, vaccinations, air pollution, “fracking”, evolution — and regardless of the specific position on a particular topic, scientific evidence continues to be questioned, ignored, revised, and politicized. And perhaps it is in this last issue, that of politics, that we may see a possible cause for a growing national pandemic of denialism. The increasingly fractured, fractious and rancorous nature of the U.S. political system threatens to undermine all debate and true skepticism, whether based on personal opinion or scientific fact.

[div class=attrib]From the Smithsonian:[end-div]

A group of scientists and statisticians led by the University of California at Berkeley set out recently to conduct an independent assessment of climate data and determine once and for all whether the planet has warmed in the last century and by how much. The study was designed to address concerns brought up by prominent climate change skeptics, and it was funded by several groups known for climate skepticism. Last week, the group released its conclusions: Average land temperatures have risen by about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since the middle of the 20th century. The result matched the previous research.

The skeptics were not happy and immediately claimed that the study was flawed.

Also in the news last week were the results of yet another study that found no link between cell phones and brain cancer. Researchers at the Institute of Cancer Epidemiology in Denmark looked at data from 350,000 cell phone users over an 18-year period and found they were no more likely to develop brain cancer than people who didn’t use the technology.

But those results still haven’t killed the calls for more monitoring of any potential link.

Study after study finds no link between autism and vaccines (and plenty of reason to worry about non-vaccinated children dying from preventable diseases such as measles). But a quarter of parents in a poll released last year said that they believed that “some vaccines cause autism in healthy children” and 11.5 percent had refused at least one vaccination for their child.

Polls say that Americans trust scientists more than, say, politicians, but that trust is on the decline. If we’re losing faith in science, we’ve gone down the wrong path. Science is no more than a process (as recent contributors to our “Why I Like Science” series have noted), and skepticism can be a good thing. But for many people that skepticism has grown to the point that they can no longer accept good evidence when they get it, with the result that “we’re now in an epidemic of fear like one I’ve never seen and hope never to see again,” says Michael Specter, author of Denialism, in his TEDTalk below.

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you think I’m not talking about you. But here’s a quick question: Do you take vitamins? There’s a growing body of evidence that vitamins and dietary supplements are no more than a placebo at best and, in some cases, can actually increase the risk of disease or death. For example, a study earlier this month in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that consumption of supplements, such as iron and copper, was associated with an increased risk of death among older women. In a related commentary, several doctors note that the concept of dietary supplementation has shifted from preventing deficiency (there’s a good deal of evidence for harm if you’re low in, say, folic acid) to one of trying to promote wellness and prevent disease, and many studies are showing that more supplements do not equal better health.

But I bet you’ll still take your pills tomorrow morning. Just in case.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article here.[end-div]